Nairobi, Kenya – I have a supreme conviction that global food markets are but the perturbation of a butterflys’s wing away from a serious tipping point. In fact, I would venture that the best way to play the narrative fallacy that is the “Global Climate Change Denial Camp” is via buying a basket of breakfast commodities and grains. There are more of us, our average calorific intake is a multiple of what it was, and we have toasted the planet — capping global agricultural output. Narrowing that perception gap and converting it into real action is going to be like herding cats.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is fond of saying that the food markets have ample inventory and that there is absolutely nothing to worry our little heads about. May I refer you to wheat, which ramped 38 percent higher in July, 3.7 percent in August, and so far this month a further 7 percent. The reasons are well known: Russia has undergone a heatwave and Vladimir Putin (probably not keen on going the way of Indonesia’s President Suharto – anger over soaring food prices after he cut fuel and some food subsidies helped drive him from power in 1998) immediately cancelled all Russian wheat exports. This is a perfect example of the asymmetry of the food markets. The moment there is a hint of trouble, countries start hoarding. It creates a concertina effect.
Last week, riots broke out in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique and the home (I am told) of wonderfully flavorsome tiger prawns. The riots broke out over a 30 percent hike in the price of bread. And I could not help feeling how interconnected the world is in this new 21st century and how what happens in the bread basket of Russia can affect a frontier country as far away as Mozambique.
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This situation in Maputo confirms how fragile the food markets are. The big irony is how many countries have embarked on a land grab in Africa in order to achieve food security. In fact, the Madagascar coup d’etat was deeply intertwined with how the president had ceded thousands of hectares, practically in perpetuity, to a South Korean company.
Given the fragility of the food markets, Maputo might well be a shot across the bows of many regimes, who have yet to secure access to sufficient food at sufficiently low prices for their people. Failure to execute on this front, surely imperils many. I recall May 1998, as soaring food prices brought protestors and rioters out on the streets of Jakarta. President Suharto was gone within days, like a puff of smoke.
The government in Maputo got a wake up call. Many others need to ask for whom the bell tolls.
Kenyan-born Aly-Khan Satchu has worked in senior positions at a number of global investment banks. Now a Nairobi-based investment banker, he blogs on African markets at Satchu’s Wrapup.